By Gergely Hidas
At the May seminar we had two guest presenters from North America, both talking about the religious traditions of Nepal. Their research activities are based primarily on Sanskrit manuscripts along with extensive fieldwork in the Kathmandu Valley.
The first speaker, Alexander von Rospatt (UC Berkeley), discussed the importance of a work from ca. the 15th century, the Svayambhūpurāṇa, a complex text about the history of local Buddhism with a special focus on the Svayambhū Stūpa, a central landmark and pilgrimage site (tīrtha) in Kathmandu. This charter-like piece, rich in narratives, is seen as an attempt for Newar Buddhism to reinvent itself: with Nepal being the centre and India the periphery. The text starts with the famous legend of origins: the Valley was once a lake, the Stūpa stood on a lotus, and the bodhisattva of wisdom, Mañjuśrī, drained this lake by cutting a gorge into the surrounding mountain range. While the area dried up resident Nāga serpents were relocated to smaller ponds and streams with Karkoṭaka being the most important up to the present. With the course of time Svayambhū developed its many tantric connections, including links to the Yoginītantras, the deity Cakrasaṃvara and the goddesses Vajrayoginī and Guhyeśvarī.
While the Svayambhūpurāṇa is translated into Tibetan, Newari and Nepali, it still lacks a complete Western rendering and only some of its versions are edited. There are four distinct recensions with slightly different titles and the length of the metrical ones ranges from a few hundred to a couple of thousand verses. The various versions also contain prescriptions for religious observances (vrata) of the bodhisattva vow. The renovation of the Stūpa is regularly sponsored by different communities in the Valley and there are exquisite depictions of the buildings and related legends both as manuscript illuminations and mural paintings.
The second speaker, Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz (Univ. of Illinois), introduced a little researched tradition, the Hindu Svasthānīvratakathā or ‘The Story of the Ritual Vow to the Goddess Svasthānī’ from the 16th century. This ritual of high-caste Hinduism focusses on the performance of the Svasthānī vow, the succesful completion of which results in prosperity. Though this goddess is little known in other sources, a copy is kept in most Hindu households, and the text is recited in these households every winter in the month of Magh (January-February). The text survives in more than 700 manuscripts, the oldest dating to 1573 CE. From the 18th century onwards the Svasthānīvratakathā underwent a ‘Purāṇicisation’ process and became an established text along with other ones like the Paśupatipurāṇa or the Nepālmahātmya. The main religious observance (vrata) takes place primarily in the ancient town of Sankhu not too far from Kathmandu. An interesting point for comparison with the observance of the bodhisattva vow at Svayambhū is that it is overwhelmingly female lay devotees who participate in both kinds of ritual.